Would you pass the gendar test

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 12 Apr 2017 11:57:29

Women bring to their writing the truth of their bodies, and an enquiry into the different ways in which gender inequity shapes human experiences (and destroys lives). Many female writers also place women protagonists at the centre of their work and many stories that are set within the household have the power to illuminate the ways in which women's lives are shaped and controlled. From writing on marriage and family to penning protest to describing oppression and discrimination to sharing a female perspective on historical events to searching for an identity, Indian women, over the last 2,000 years, have chosen the right words to have their say. In this excerpt from Unbound, edited by Annie Zaidi and published by Aleph, noted academic Nividita Menon writes on ‘seeing like a feminist’.

‘Gender verification’ Tests for the Olympic Games were suspended in 2000 after enough evidence had emerged that ‘atypical chromosomal variations’ are not atypical at all, but rather, so common that it is impossible to judge ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ on the basis of chromosomal pattern alone. Maleness and femaleness are not only culturally different, they are not even biologically stable features at all times.

But in sports, as in all other spheres of life, despite evidence to the contrary, it continues to be assumed that every human being can be assigned to one of two sex categories. Thus, the Olympic Committee retained a policy of ‘suspicion based testing’ on a case-by-case basis, as did other sports bodies. This policy at different times resulted in two women athletes-south African Caster Semenya and Indian Santhi Soundarajan-being disqualified after winning their events, for failing ‘gender tests’. Their experiences raise a host of questions about this biological body that is considered to be simply available in nature.

Three sets of characteristics are held to determine sexual identity:
a) genetic-the XX female and XY male Chromosomal Pattern:
b) hormonal-estrogen (female), androgen/testosterone (male); and
c) genital-the visible physical characteristics of penis/vagina.
However, feminist scholars of science studies have directed our attention to developments in biology that show that the three are not necessarily linked. Thus, if a body has female genitals it is not necessarily the case that it would have preponderantly female chromosomes and female hormones. Moreover, sex chromosomes themselves often defy the pattern of XX (women) and XY (men) and have been known to exhibit other patterns, such as XO (females with only one X chromosome), XXY, XYY, XXX, or a ‘mosaic condition’, in which different cells in the same individual's body have different sex chromosomes (Buzuvis 2010).

Most bodies (including yours and mine) marked male and female in this world would not pass ‘gender tests’ if the prefect congruence of these three factors were being examined. The point is that in everyday life, gender tests are not routine because once a sex has been assigned at birth, one lives one’s life accordingly.

It is mainly in sex-segregated activities like competitive sports that the question arises, and only for women, because it is assumed that having male characteristics is an advantage in physical activities, Thus, ‘real’ women would face the unfair advantages that ‘not women’ have on the field. Of course, women athletes who are disqualified for some chromosomal, hormonal or physical variation that casts doubt on their ‘femaleness’, do not get categorized as ‘men’. They are still excluded from men’s sports events and professions reserved for men.

At least two questions arise here. First, how fair are competitive events that assume male bodies to be the norm, so that to have male features is an advantage? This only reflects the general understanding that any quality associated with men is superior and must set the norm for all humanity. In whichever ways women are different, their difference is considered to be an inferior difference, not Just a difference, or a superior difference.
But the second more fundamental question here arises from the fact that not all natural advantages are considered illegitimate in sports. For instance, height in basketball is an accepted natural advantage, while American Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps’s particular body proportions that enable him to cut through water more easily then ‘normal’ men may, in fact, be a disease called Marfan Syndrome.

Different ethnic groups have different physical characteristics, such as height and build. The point is, really, that competitive sport does not sort out competitors on the basis of comparable physical features and athletic ability-there is on level playing field. Men of different physical attributes, levels of training and differential natural advantage such a height and strength compete against one another, as do women. It is not important to ask why the only standard of difference applied is that of an assumed gender bipolarity? To put it in the striking words of one scholar:

Saying that no one can use natural advantage is antithetical to sport. The average individual does not become a world-class or Olympic athlete... [Those who excel in sport have genetically acquired physiological advantages whose potential has been realized fortuitously through cultural and environmental factors]. Yet, for conditions other than those related to sex, such variation is not challenged as beyond the bounds of fair play (Buzuvis 2010).

Consider an intriguing story from the war zone of the sports field. In the 1936 Olympics, Polish sprinter Stella Walsh, known as the fastest women in the world, was beaten by American Helen Stephens, who set a world record. After the race, a polish journalist protested that no real women could run so fast, and Olympic officials performed a ‘sex test’ on Helen, in which it was established that she was a woman. Forty-four years later, Stella Walsh, who had become an American citizen, was shot to death in a parking lot.

The autopsy of her body revealed that Stella, who had run slower than Helen, has in fact ‘been a man’ (Boylan 2008). Another strange story from the same Berlin Olympics-twenty years afterwards , a Hitler Youth member who had competed as a women and ranked fourth in the women’s high jump event, confessed he was a man who had been forced by the Nazis to compete as a women . This ‘real man’ came fourth, behind three women (Buzuvis 2010).

(Excerpted from Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women's Writing edited by Annie Zaidi; Published by Aleph; Pp: 357; Price: Rs 299.)
(© Women's Feature Service) l